It’s hard to underestimate the disruption we’ve faced in recent times. According to the International Labour Organisation, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the steep decline in hours worked worldwide equated to the loss of 400 million jobs in the second quarter of 2020.
The IMF forecasts a 3% shrink in the global economy this year, a decline comparable to the Great Depression, while the World Bank cites the collapse in oil prices as potentially causing long-term damage for emerging and developing economies. While the prognosis is grim on a global and national scale, it’s vital to not overlook the impact of recent events on ordinary businesses and employees.
Employee wellbeing: what’s changed?
In just a few months, businesses have had to dramatically revise their forecasts, implement whole new strategies, build resilience for an uncertain future and compete in a tightened market. It may be individual employees that feel the worst burden; worries over job security, the need to adapt to whole new conditions, emotional and physical hardship caused by enforced isolation, and the risk of decreased career prospects, to name a few.
Fortunately, businesses and professional bodies have been quick to show that they understand their employees’ hardship and have developed initiatives to help. To discover the work that’s being undertaken, HRD Connect spoke with Kelly Feehan, Service Director at CABA, the charity supporting the wellbeing of chartered accountants and their families. She outlined how CABA has reacted to recent events, the ways that senior leaders can make a genuine and positive difference, plus the need to humanize the workplace in years to come.
How technology can tailor individual employee wellbeing solutions
“During the pandemic, we have been identifying and understanding the varying needs of our community. We’ve seen a 13% rise in all types of enquiries, with legal advice being the most sought-after service, particularly in employment law, around furloughing and unfortunately, redundancy,” Kelly said.
Employment law hasn’t been the only area of significant growth. “We have also seen a 31% increase in the number of people seeking financial support, largely as an effect of coronavirus. We’ve managed to work predominately with our community online, launching a dedicated, and well-received, online Coronavirus hub, and by converting face-to-face support, events and training into virtual offerings.”
On the topic of how professionals can access advice, Kelly explains the changes that have been implemented among some of CABA’s services and support.
She said: “We’ve introduced Qwell, an online counselling and mental health platform for adults; from anxiety and melancholy over winter to worries over job prospects, accountants and their families have an easy way to find help when things are becoming too much.”
She also went on to mention CABA’s website, and the importance it bears.
“It’s more important than ever as a means of providing information and support,” she said. “This year, access to our wellbeing tools grew by 37% and visitor numbers have grown by 23%. Our community have accessed our online webinars and e-learning courses with themes such as managing personal change, nutrition, developing a growth mindset, building and maintaining resilience, lone working and developing resilient teams.”
Moving forward together with employee wellbeing
Outlining other initiatives that CABA has launched to address key issues, Kelly said: “We want to empower members of the ICAEW Chartered Accountant community to maintain a sense of balance and control in their lives. That’s why we launched our Keeping Yourself Well campaign in late June.
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“More recently, phase 2 of the campaign, Moving Forward Together, features a collection of self-help articles on topics such as redundancy, returning to work, socializing and managing increased workloads, along with information about all our other services. We cover all areas of wellbeing – mental, physical, career, financial, being a carer and relationships – and we’ll continue to add more useful resources in line with what’s happening in the world.”
Diving into the potential impact on working relationships, Kelly said: “Businesses and employees are facing conditions they’ve never had to deal with before.
“The psychological contract between employer and employee has perhaps never had as great a relevance as it does today. This unwritten contract relies heavily on concepts of fairness and trust, as well as clear expectations on both sides. Regular, two-way communication is critical to ensure this dynamic contract is maintained.
“Employers who have been fair, reasonable, compassionate and patient, both before and since the crisis, will be better prepared than businesses who were quick to announce restructuring programs or who failed to offer flexible home-based support. The latter will struggle to regain fractured trust.”
The four key aspects of employee wellbeing
Kelly also outlines four critical aspects of employee wellbeing: emotional, psychological, social and physical.
“Many employees will have undergone significant emotional upheaval during the crisis, from juggling childcare to living with illness, dealing with furlough or living with domestic violence,” she said.
“Employers need to remember the responses will be varied, and to expect a period of questioning and emotional flux. Enabling employees to have the space to explore their thoughts and feelings is hugely important. This does not have to look like a therapeutic space, although this may be helpful for some. It’s vital that peers and employers create an atmosphere where employees can reach out, knowing they can be open and honest.”
Kelly acknowledges that the psychological cost of 2020 will be immense, and that businesses need to have robust strategies in place to address it. “This could include employee assistance programs offering free confidential counselling, for example. At the very least a wellness action plan (WAP) will help managers to converse comfortably with their teams about individualized mental health support,” she said.
Why social initiatives matter today
With face-to-face contact now severely limited, HR leaders need to build social communications through a variety of digital channels.
Kelly concurred, pointing out that “video conferencing, regular check-in calls, team quizzes and virtual coffee breaks are integral to boosting connection during a time of extreme disconnection.”
However, she said: “Even the most introverted employees may be craving the real-time physical presence of their colleagues after months apart. This will be particularly felt by those who have been in lockdown alone and those who crave the energy, enthusiasm and ideas of their peers.”
As the ongoing pandemic continues, the time is right to build social communication strategies into the fabric of daily business. From informal chats to team catch ups, ensure they’re factored into the calendar and that all employees are involved – some may require more encouragement than others. At the same time, it’s vital to retain the flexibility and reactivity that so many businesses have displayed; keep communication channels open, feedback coming in, and plans that are responsive to employee needs.
“Employers will benefit from regular communication through a range of channels in order to help employees adjust to new ways of working. Consideration must be given to employees with additional adjustments and workspace requirements. Transition will take time to bed in and patience and tolerance need to be adopted by everyone to ensure effective behavior change,” Kelly said.
“Businesses may benefit from reviewing the variety of technology-based support available now, which will help their employees move safely and confidently from current home-working to back-to-the-office.”
What could be some of the wider effects of 2020?
Concluding, Kelly said: “There is a spotlight focused directly on human wellbeing now. Employers have a unique opportunity to capitalize on this for the benefit of employees, business productivity, customer experience and the contribution these factors have on a healthy, fair and equitable society.
“Issues of wellbeing, mental health, domestic circumstance, financial hardship, chronic physical ill-health and agile working practices have new urgency. Action is needed now. We are increasingly hearing about ‘humanizing’ the workplace and it is worth taking a moment to consider what that means for your business.
“Humanizing the workplace involves a multi-faceted approach. We must remember that to be human means to make mistakes. Instead of adopting the pervading business narrative that emphasizes getting decisions right first time, every time, organisations will need to embrace the messiness that humanizing the work experience inevitably involves. Through this iterative, human approach, we can positively change the employee experience in ways we might never have thought possible six months ago.”
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